Putting pressure on color

Having written recently about Late Monet as well as Wayne Thiebaud, I’ve become more aware of how my own work from perception - using “my own eyes”, as Diana Thater puts it - has led me to push against the constraints of painting from observation - using separate frames to enlarge the compositions and to expand their centralized view - but particularly to address the problem of color and my over-riding impulse to enhance its resonance; this seems to be the goal, to insist on the value of color in itself, not just as an agent of description. This seems to happen in Thiebaud’s use of “halation” and simultaneous contrast, and Monet, of course, reached a similar point in his late work.

Having gone back to paint very simply from looking at the park I’ve painted for years, I find myself entering the world of my collages, as the colors become more insistent and define a particular resonance; at that point rather than continue working on the rendering of objects, I’ve decided to add colored squares to the composition - violating some unspoken rule I’d always had about the sanctity of the visual field I perceive, but to extend my development of color orchestration in the painting. I realize that my early urge to add collage to my acrylic paintings might reflect a similar desire to “bring color forward”, to achieve the “three dimensional opticality” Greenberg found in both Pollock and Monet.

Everyday Spaces

Jonathan Crary writes of the loss of "everyday" spaces, parts of life outside the domain of institutional organization; these are spaces I've cultivated in my work in efforts to lend them artistic interest. As these spaces contract, I see my interest in the Bezold Effect - which creates seams within the visual field - and the fluidity of video as efforts to grasp the disappearing realm of freedom in daily experience. The video drawings are open-ended - multiple versions can be juxtaposed, while their constant movement encourages an improvisatory mode of drawing, allowing fragments to emerge from the envelope of space and time. Light - color - remains an overall organizing force, sometimes generalized yet also focused in the solitary patches that embody what Matisse called "a moment in the life of the artist".

Video Drawings

My investigation of the visual field concerns the process of focus by which we explore it; I've used video as a way to recreate the flow of perceptual awareness that generates our impression of a unified visual field. In the process I consider the video itself a sort of surrogate for my own body and its spatial awareness. Given that much of the visual field is actually "not seen" in our process of constantly shifting focus, I use color, observed on site and generated in the studio, to lend it material presence.These color grids can function as frames, which enable me to focus on selected visual sensations in drawing, or to select an area to represent the visual field as a whole. I'm intrigued by the "overall" field, even as I know it is unrepresentable.

Vision and Touch - Objective and Subjective?

Reading Daniel Butterly's The Architecture of Vision, an argument for painting as composing with spaces rather than rendering objects, I'm fascinated by how it runs counter to the dominant anti-opticality of most twentieth-century art. Using a method of geometric projection that expands on Renaissance perspective by introducing a separate space for each eye, Butterly grounds vision in mathematical objectivity, endowing it with rational authority - a notion of visual truth opposed to the subjective procedures of Pollock or the irony of Duchamp.

My own intuitive procedure has increasingly relied on touch - applying pieces of paper to drawings and acrylics, and modeling in clay, as though sensing some inadequacy in the methods of impressionistic painting; I struggle with an awareness of the visual field as immersive and mostly out of focus. I rely on relations of contiguity, as though feeling my way through the spaces around me. I turn to translating my collages into oil paintings, as though to reaffirm their structure by touching the colored patches again.

It's in this context that Butterly's geometric projection opens new possibilities. Just as Peter Campus found the video camera a "surrogate eye", offering an objective monitor to the roving vision of corporeal perception, his "reference form" offers a dialogue between rational construction and intuitive exploration. It has the additional advantage of being highly compatible with Photoshop, which I've also utilized to lend abstract structure to my landscape collages by extracting selected colors.

In a similar way, Cezanne struggled to establish a broader framework for Impressionism, which rooted the painter in his local subject, in the intimate tactility of paint on canvas -  just as American poet Charles Olson believed his deep engagement with local history, in the network of contiguous places in Gloucester, would lead to a poetry of larger scale. Such ambitious visions may not be within our grasp, but we can gesture towards them by creating a dialogue between objective and subjective fields - between the overall objective view we need to orient ourselves and the more intimate one we explore with shifting attention.

Classical Vernacular , acrylic collage edited in Photoshop, dimensions variable, 2016

Classical Vernacular, acrylic collage edited in Photoshop, dimensions variable, 2016


Photographers like Robert Adams have stripped away the grandiosity of the American West, avoiding the rhetoric of the American landscape tradition. Adams eschews the grandiose and spectacular in favor of the modest and mundane. He abandons the urge to dominate and accepts what is, trusting to the democratic virtue of everyday light to redeem the landscape for art. He quotes cinematographer Raoul Coutard: "Daylight has an inhuman faculty for always being perfect."

Adams accepts on his own terms the challenge of developing new forms for new landscapes - and its corollary, the process of defining himself as an American.

Robert Adams, Colorado Springs, Colorado,  1969

Robert Adams, Colorado Springs, Colorado,  1969

American-Pacific Spaces

 Java's volcanoes have shaped global climate for millennia, but this year it's the island's extreme fire season that portends drastic effects, a new geopolitical era.

In Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson coins the term "Pacific man" to express the American push to the West. Olson talks of American space, or SPACE as he writes it, and all the economic and social tensions it entails, as encapsulated in Herman Melville's whaling ship. Some "ride" this space, he notes, while others "dig in".

Meridel Rubenstein, a photographer based in Santa Fe, who teaches in Singapore while working to reclaim marshes in Iraq, is one who rides. Her photos of Indonesian volcanoes link global conditions to an American tradition of landscape documentation that extends back to nineteenth-century geological surveys, incorporating along the way the "local" as envisioned by  Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, like Olson himself, seem to both "ride" and "dig in."

Like them, Rubenstein endows her photo documentation with an urgent sense of mission. She engages physically with her subjects, from printing on aluminum or on paper made from tree bark,  to managing water resources on the Euphrates. Rubenstein wrestles with the ideological energy of American space - aiming to harness its expansive impulse to a global vision of spirituality. There's both white and black magic in the mirror-like surfaces of her prints.

Stieglitz inspired artists to define America and themselves by immersion in the "local", appealing to an innocent embrace of the New World and its promise of fresh vision through the new medium of photography. But the "local", which Rubenstein extends to her work in Iraq, demands a grounding in the troubled history of the land, as writers like Olson and William Carlos Williams understood.

Olson observes that, for Melville, the root of our ambitions lies not in democracy but in the will to overwhelm nature. For him, the White Whale is more accurate than Whitman's Leaves of Grass -  "Because it is America, all her space, the malice, the root."

Meridel Rubenstein,  Mt. Toba Volcanic Ash, 74,000 years old, found in Malaysia,  2010, archival pigment on aluminum

Meridel Rubenstein, Mt. Toba Volcanic Ash, 74,000 years old, found in Malaysia, 2010, archival pigment on aluminum

Visual Field

"Visual field" calls up the idea of a camera viewfinder, a rectangular format, but the visual field is all around us.

I like poet Charles Olson's "composition by field", which applies his sense of new American painting to the linear convention of poetry. Painting is no longer just the depiction of a subject but an organization of the overall space before us.

The Impressionists broke up the enclosed contours of objects. The Bauhaus School developed the grid as a field for invention, and Hans Hofmann opened up the field to rhythmic improvisation, to the emergence of new configurations.

Henri Matisse,  Red Studio , 1910

Henri Matisse, Red Studio, 1910